People notice when we speak with our eyes

What’s with these people who close their eyelids when they talk to another person one-on-one during a conversation? I feel like a jerk standing there looking at their closed eyelids as they talk to me, waiting for them to open their eyes again near the end of their statements. I m not deformed or anything, so it isn t like they can’t stand to look at me for some ugliness reason. I am trying to picture training myself to silently turn and walk away from them next time this happens because i am so insulted. Is it natural or egotistical to feel insulted? J.P., Las Vegas

First off, the "quietly sneaking away" thing is very funny. Still chuckling about that.

Ah, oculesics! And thank you for giving me only the second opportunity in my lifetime to use that word in a sentence. I’ve known the word only since last year, when I was researching a column and stumbled across it. Oculesics is the study of eye contact, how it’s used and the meaning it conveys in various cultural contexts.

The two fundamental ways that primates forge and attend to the bonds of relationship are 1) touch, and 2) eye contact. That includes us human primates.

The way we manage eye contact conveys respect or disrespect, welcome or distance, affection or hostility. With our eyes we can pick a fight. Or stop a fight. With our eyes we can invite courtship, even seduction. Or, with those same eyes we can say: "Don’t bother coming over here to introduce yourself. Just keep moving."

The people who know me best have learned to say, when necessary, "Steven, I need your eyes." See, these people have learned that, if I’m not looking at you, then it’s likely I’m not entirely listening to you. And it’s true: What I’m looking at is almost always the thing holding all or at least the best of my attention. Those same people also know how to say, "Are you mad at me?" when they notice subtle or not-so-subtle changes in my otherwise normal eye contact. And that’s true, too. If I’m angry with you or feeling hurt by you, I reduce/avoid eye contact.

I admire people who have the social cognizance and grace to know instinctively when to meet my eye (as when we’re being introduced) and when to avert their eyes (should I forget to zip my pants when exiting the men’s room). In counseling sessions, I’m very intentional about what I do with my eyes when, say, a patient has fallen into sobbing and deep grief. Look up, check in, look away, then look up again. It’s a dance. Stay connected, but don’t stare.

In the capricious whimsy of cultural diversity, it’s startling to notice just how much we Americans value eye contact as a sign of respect … and then to turn around and notice other cultures who symbolized steady eye contact as a deliberate disrespect. By this measure, most non-native Americans would think some Native American peoples are either shy or shifty, while they would see us as arrogant, intrusive, and ill-mannered.

All because of what we’re doing with our eyes.

Sometimes in conversation, people will avert their eyes if they are thinking. I do this. Other times I will close my eyes, especially if I’m trying desperately to remember something (like, yikes, what I promised to do for my girlfriend!). But folks will also, often, close their eyes in conversation when beset by a deep emotion. Doesn’t even have to be a negative emotion. Shame, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, empathy, the surprise of glad tidings — people will close their eyes as if to both bear and experience these feelings in a moment of privacy.

But perhaps you are describing more than the nuances of eye contact deployed by a person with at least average "Social IQ." You could be describing someone with a quirky, anxious habit. Not much different from people who bite their fingernails.

It’s a bit of a reach to lay claim to an "insult" here. But, in our culture, it is at least odd, awkward, unsettling, off-putting, not well-mannered. If the relationship(s) are important to you, I’d straight up ask: "Has anyone ever told you that you close your eyes a lot when you talk?" Or, "Could I ask for your eyes while I say this?"

It might just be an idiosyncratic tic of which your friend is largely unaware.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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